Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1918, was the hottest day ever in Philadelphia. The official thermometer reached 106 degrees at 3.50 p.m., then the highest temperature since the city began keeping records in 1829.
It wasn’t unexpected. The high temperature the day before was 103. An ongoing heat wave stretched from Georgia to New York, as far west as Kansas and Nebraska.
The World War was in progress in Europe, and shipyards were busy on the Delaware River front from the Navy Yard to Port Richmond.
Pusey & Jones shipyards anticipated the heat problem, and yesterday told their men to report at 5 a. m., to be sent home at noon.
Several hundred workmen were overcome by the heat at the huge new Hog Island shipyards, then the largest in the world, and the rest of the 26,000 men were sent home early. There were dubious claims that one Hog Island thermometer read 122.
The phrase “air conditioning” was unknown. The big factories began dismissing workers as the temperature climbed: the Navy Yard aircraft plant, Midvale Steel, Disston’s tool works. Cramp shipyard, even the Stetson Hat factory. Baldwin Locomotives remained open.
There was much swimming in the Delaware and Schuylkill in attempts to cool off, but reports were that the river water was warm. There were unsubstantiated reports of drownings.
The baths of the Public Baths Association were busy, as were the free city swimming pools. Many fire hydrants were turned on and children were playing in the streams of water in the streets.
The police department had officers on motorcycles patrolling all over the city to arrest anyone turning on fire hydrants, which could lower water pressure when needed to battle a fire.
The Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co. gave permission to the trolley car motormen and conductors to remove their uniform jackets and work in their shirtsleeves, for the first time in years.
The Gray’s Ferry Bridge was closed to traffic because the heat had expanded part of the iron structure.
The Women’s S.P.C.A was trying to keep up with reports of collapsed horses overcome by the heat. Their own horses began succumbing to the high temperature, and the women contrived to hitch a motor truck to pull one of its horse ambulances.
Nine heat-related deaths were reported in Philadelphia. Doctors thought it could have been worse if the humidity had not stayed at a low 38 percent.
Ferry houses and railroad stations were crowded with persons going to the country or the seashore. That night, people were sleeping in parks and playgrounds, where the heat was less oppressive than indoors. Low nighttime temperature was 82.
The excessive heat hit other cities. There were six deaths reported in New York, and 11 in Chicago. New York set a temperature record of 102, as did Atlantic City with 104. Temperatures of 114 were reported in Washington, D.C.
But the crushing heat didn’t stop a big crowd from turning out at Shibe Park for an evening of boxing matches. And to the surprise of the men attending the event, officers of the local draft board were stationed at every entrance and checked the draft registration card of each man who entered.
Those who didn’t have army draft cards were taken to the left field bull pen. The government agents allowed the 22 draft dodgers to watch the fights, and then took them to a cooler place - Moyamensing Prison.
Read columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.
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